THE BLOG
01/15/2015 06:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

10 Things You Probably Didn't Know About MLK Day

The battle over MLK Day moved a Super Bowl. Southern states weren't the last to celebrate it. The law making it a national holiday was signed by a Republican President. And you'll never guess who voted for it in the U.S. Senate! Here are ten things you probably didn't know about Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

10. After Democrats like Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced the bill to make it a Federal Holiday each year, and with pressure from the SCLC, Coretta Scott King and the King Center, GOP President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1983. The first celebration of MLK as a Federal holiday was January 20, 1986.

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9. Illinois was the first state to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a holiday. That took place in 1973.

8. Stevie Wonder helped MLK Day become a federal holiday. He released the song "Happy Birthday" in honor of Dr. King. It became a rallying cry for MLK Day supporters.

7. South Carolina used to allow state employees to either take MLK Day off, or one of several holidays commemorating the Confederate States of America (CSA).

6. Lots of Democrats voted for MLK Day to be a holiday. But so did future House Speaker Newt Gingrich, as well as former GOP Congressman Jack Kemp, an ex-football player.

5. Super Bowl XXVII was supposed to be played in Tempe, Arizona. But when Arizona Governor Evan Mecham rescinded MLK Day and a failed referendum to reinstate it led owners and the National Football League to move the game to Pasadena, California. It cost the state half-a-billion dollars. Voters approved the MLK holiday shortly thereafter, and the Super Bowl returned to Arizona in 1996.

4. Labor Unions like United Auto Workers (UAW) were instrumental in pushing for MLK Day to be a holiday for all workers, not just government employees.

3. There's a myth that because MLK Day became a holiday, Lincoln's Birthday and Washington's Birthday were forced into a single holiday: President's Day. That's false, as President Richard Nixon designated President's Day in 1971, 12 years before MLK Day legislation was signed and 15 years before MLK Day was celebrated. In fact, the idea of having just one "President's Day" dates back to the 1950s.

2. The last states to approve MLK Day weren't Southern states. New Hampshire was the last state to approve MLK Day, and Utah changed its "Human Rights Day" to MLK Day, to be the last state to celebrate King's birthday, in 2000.

1. South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, known throughout his career as an arch-segregationist, voted for MLK Day to be a Federal holiday, back in 1983.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.